In the six weeks I was in Asia before arriving in Vietnam, I met only one person who liked Ho Chi Minh City (the city formerly known as Saigon) at all. Opinions ranged from finding it grim and sleazy to just not finding anything to like about the city. Most people advised me not to stay very long there, including people who hadn’t yet been there!
Based on my past experience of much-maligned cities, I was ready to like Ho Chi Minh City. I was ready to find it a dusty, chaotic, tourist-unfriendly, polluted city with a charm that would make itself clear if only you looked.
I was completely correct.
The city was chaotic and it took no time at all to learn that the motorbikes would never stop or slow down around you when you crossed the road – you just had to hope they went around you. This policy also applied to the pavement where the bikes also had free reign. If someone needed to get past, shoving past you was completely fine. The city was hot and sticky, and at night the Western sex tourists leered and sweated over their trophy women for the night.
What was there to like?
The street food scene could rival Bangkok, but Saigon street food got me so excited. It was my a quest to find the dishes I want to try, and the sellers delightfully offered small children’s chairs and a choice of chopsticks or forks. They were friendly and the meal sized dishes never failed to be delicious. In Ho Chi Minh City it was so easy to eat for less than a few US dollars every day
People were friendly. You hear a lot that the Vietnamese people are unfriendly and always rip off tourists – and in my experience, it’s often true. We regularly were short changed, glared at or snapped at. Here the unfriendly were balanced with the extremely kind. People who waved and said hello, the cheerful street food sellers balanced out the people who stared with distrust.
Even the tricksters were inspiringly innovative. A shoe cleaner spotted that the front of Ale’s shoes were coming apart, and with swift efficiency, had glued the front down. We began to protest and tell him to stop, but he removed the shoe from Ale’s foot completely and refused to return it, as he scrubbed away the dirt and fitted a new sole. By this point we were furiously yelling we had no money and we didn’t want this, we wanted the shoe back – but he began to grab the other shoe. At this point we had to be firm and walk away! At the time it was infuriating – but now we can laugh!
The city may not be as architecturally stunning as other Vietnamese cities, but it has beautiful parks:
Religious sites for many faiths:
And a cheap tourist hub to rival Khao San Road and Siem Reap!
The city didn’t try to appeal too hard to tourists. It made some concessions, but it was a functional city and we were the guests. We had to take it as we found it, and like it or not. I liked it. I liked strolling around, navigating the simple streets, the lights, the traffic, how it became more alive as the day went along – this city is a night owl, and most importantly the incomparable food.
Ho Chi Minh City made me feel good. It boosted my enthusiasm for trying new things and seeing things in a different way. More than finding “nothing to like”, I was spoiled by things to love.